Humans have been struggling with viral diseases since before recorded history. Communities all across the world have been impacted by epidemics that have devastated entire populations. Some of the more infamous and catastrophic outbreaks include the Black Plague (1347-1351), which caused the deaths of 75 million to 200 million people; the Small Pox epidemic (1492-1850), which killed between 50% and 90% of all Native Americans; and the Spanish Flu (1918-1919), which resulted in the deaths of more than 50 million people worldwide. More recently, communities have struggled to cope with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, SARs, and Ebola.
Fortunately, human ingenuity has helped to advance the field of medicine dramatically in recent years, limiting the impact of outbreaks and even preventing them in some cases. One of the greatest, most revolutionary innovations in all of medical history has been the development of vaccines. Vaccines provide people with immunity against deadly diseases that previously killed millions. Since the advent of vaccines, deaths caused by infectious diseases have declined at an unprecedented rate in human history. In recent years, for instance, the incidence of measles has fallen by more than 75% worldwide. More impressively, the number of polio cases has been reduced by an incredible 99%. And thanks to a global vaccination initiative, the once deadly disease of small pox has been completely eliminated as a threat. There’s no question that vaccines have had a major positive impact on human health.
And all of it would be impossible without the insight, commitment, and dedication of a brilliant 18th century scientist—Edward Jenner. Thanks to Jenner’s tireless efforts and exceptional vision, the field of immunology was born. It has been said that his work has saved more lives than the work of any other single human in history. His desire to make the world a better, healthier place has changed the course of history and earned him the respect of scientists worldwide.
With this being World Immunization Week, Infinite Fire takes a look back at the man who made it all possible.
A QUEST FOR KNOWLEDGE
Edward Anthony Jenner was born on May 17th, 1749, in Berkeley, England—the eighth of nine children. His father, Stephen Jenner, was the Vicar of Berkeley, and he made sure that his children received the best education possible. As a result, Edward went to excellent schools, and at the age of 14 he became an apprentice to a surgeon, who he studied with for 8 years. During his apprenticeship, Edward encountered a girl who claimed to have an immunity to smallpox, simply because she had previously been infected by cowpox. This interesting claim is what led Jenner to begin investigating the body’s immune response system.
In 1770, at the age of 21, Jenner began studying with several top surgeons, including John Hunter, who encouraged Jenner to be more experimental in his research. “Don’t think, try,” was Hunter’s advice, and it had a huge impact on Jenner’s practice later in life.
After completing his education in 1773, Jenner returned back to his hometown of Berkeley, where he remained for the rest of his life. In the rural town of Berkeley, Jenner became a dedicated and successful country doctor/surgeon. Along with several other physicians, Jenner founded the Fleece Medical Society, which met weekly at the Fleece Inn for dinner and to read medical papers. Jenner, himself, contributed papers on a variety of subjects, including cowpox and other infectious diseases.
In 1788, at the age of 39, Jenner married Catharine Kingscote, and together they had one son and one daughter. Sadly, his wife died from tuberculosis in 1815, with his son dying shortly afterwards of the same disease.
FROM INVESTIGATION TO INNOVATION
Jenner lived at a time when smallpox was considered one of the deadliest and most persistent diseases in England. The only form of prevention, brought over to England by a Dutch physician, involved scratching the vein of a healthy person and infecting him with smallpox from someone who had suffered a mild attack. The hope was that the healthy person would develop a natural resistance. While the method was often effective, there were certainly serious risks involved. For instance, the patient often contracted the full blown disease, sometimes with fatal results. Clearly, a better, less risky procedure was needed. And Jenner was eager to take on the challenge.
Jenner’s breakthrough came from his keen powers of observation. In 1788, when a wave of smallpox swept through his area, Jenner noticed that one group of people never seemed to get infected with smallpox: cattle farmers who had previously been infected with another disease—cowpox. In some way, cowpox seemed to provide these farmers with a kind of immunity. He theorized that the pus from cowpox blisters somehow protected people from contracting smallpox.
Recalling what he had heard the girl at school say years earlier, Jenner decided to test her claim and his newly formed theory. He just needed a way of showing that it was true. In 1796 he conducted an experiment on one of his patients, James Phipps. After making two small cuts on the patient’s arm, Jenner rubbed a small amount of cowpox pus into each wound. Although the Phipps did come down with mild symptoms, in a few days he was in fine health. A few weeks later, Jenner repeated the procedure, this time exposing Phipps to small amounts of smallpox pus, but the patient remained perfectly healthy this time, confirming that James Phipps was now immune from catching the deadly disease. Edward Jenner’s vaccine against smallpox had worked, and his theory had been validated.
Jenner continued to carry out tests, using an additional 23 subjects, with the same encouraging results. In 1798, he published his findings in an article called “An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Known by the Name of Cow Pox.”
But not everyone accepted his findings, at first. The press, for instance, ridiculed him with a cartoon, depicting his patients growing cow parts from their body. The clergy especially derided him, claiming that it was repulsive and ungodly to inoculate someone with material from a diseased animal. Even the scientific and medical community was skeptical. However, as word of the success of his vaccine spread, his work soon became accepted, and his process became standard practice.
“The joy I felt,” said Jenner, “as the prospect before me of being the instrument destined to take away from the world one of its greatest calamities (smallpox), was so excessive that I found myself in a kind of reverie”
TRIUMPH OVER SMALLPOX
Edward Jenner’s findings soon spread throughout Europe, and his new vaccination procedure was adopted rapidly by many countries. A Spanish medical mission was launched with the sole purpose of giving smallpox vaccinations to everyone in the Americas, the Philippines, China, Macao, and St. Helena Island. And when the expedition was successful, Jenner wrote, “I don’t imagine the annals of history furnish an example of philanthropy so noble, so extensive as this.”
Jenner’s continuing work researching vaccination prevented him from carrying on his medical practice, but he was given full support by his peers and by Britain’s King George III when he petitioned parliament for research money. In 1802, he was granted 10,000 pounds for furthering his studies. And in 1807, he was given another 20,000 pounds after the Royal College of Physicians confirmed the widespread effectiveness of his smallpox vaccination. It was a moment of great triumph for the small-town doctor.
Jenner’s years of hard work and dedication led to widespread recognition. He was elected president of the Jennerian Society in 1803, an organization whose main purpose was to further study the importance of vaccination. He also became an honorary member of several organizations, including the Medical and Chirurgical Society (1805), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1802), and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (1806).
In 1821, Jenner was given the great national honor of being appointed as the personal physician to King George IV, and, the same year, was made Mayor of Berkeley and Justice of the Peace.
LEGACY AND DEATH
On January 25th, in 1823, Jenner was found in his home suffering from internal bleeding and with the right side of his body paralyzed, the results of an apparent stroke. On January 26th, just one day later, he passed away from a second stroke at the age of 73. He was buried in the Jenner family vault at the Church of St. Mary’s in Berkeley.
Although the world had lost a brilliant and inventive man, his findings would go on to help save the lives of countless millions of people, as well as animals, as the process of vaccination was refined and improved over time. In 1979, WHO, the World Health Organization, declared that smallpox had been eradicated, largely due to extensive vaccination programs.
Jenner has been recognized and honored in many ways over the years since his passing. His house has been preserved as a museum; statues of him were erected in the nave of Gloucester Cathedral and in Trafalgar Square; a town in the U.S. was named after him (Jennersville, Pennsylvania); and a street was named in his honor in south London.
Edward Jenner was a pioneering physician and scientist who was not afraid to take chances, even in the face of ridicule and derision. His commitment to improving the health and lives of his fellow man was the fuel that pushed him to great heights of success and ushered in a new era of disease prevention that would benefit the entire world.